Is NZ ready for online voting?

In last week’s column, I predicted that the government’s digital identity service RealMe will eventually be used for online voting. I was surprised to discover this is a divisive issue, since some people think online voting will never (or at least should never) happen. Others – including parts of the New Zealand government – think it’s not only doable, but are paving the way to make online voting a reality.

In fact, online voting is set to be introduced to some areas of New Zealand next year. Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ) has already announced up to nine trials of online voting in the 2019 local authority elections. Among the nine councils considering whether to proceed with the trial are Auckland Council (the country’s largest local body) and Wellington City Council.

Eight of the nine councils intend to offer online voting to all eligible voters. The exception is Auckland Council, which has opted to do the online voting trial with just a subset (about 10%) of electors. It’s important to point out, however, that online voting will be optional during this trial. The councils will still need to send voting papers by post, so that voters can stick with the current postal method if they prefer.

As LGNZ President Dave Cull noted in July, these trials are being supported by the Well-beings Amendment Bill and the Local Electoral Matters Bill. Both were introduced by the present government in April and are currently at the select committee stage.

I asked Dean Heiford from Marlborough District Council, one of the nine local bodies considering the online voting trial, what are the chances the trials will actually proceed?

“Assuming the necessary legislative and regulatory frameworks are in place and the online voting working party is satisfied the online voting system is sufficiently robust,” Heiford said, “we are in a very strong position to deliver the trial.”

According to Heiford the support of current Minister for Local Government, Hon Nanaia Mahuta, has been key. She is “committed to increasing levels of civic participation in society,” he said.

Indeed, increasing voter turnout seems to be the primary reason for adding online voting. Low voter turnouts are the norm in local body elections; in 2016 the average turnout was just 42%, down from 49% in 2010. For Auckland Council in 2016, turnout was 38.5%. It’s hoped the convenience of online voting will improve these dismal statistics.

Another reason, explained Heiford, is to make the voting process more efficient.

“The current voting period is three weeks, and we lose one week getting papers in the mail and another week getting them back,” he said.

The main argument against online voting is, of course, security risks.

There are many skeptics in the cyber security world who think online voting is downright dangerous to democracy. J.M. Porup from CSO magazine, who describes himself as “a security geek since 2002,” has declared that “online voting is impossible to secure.” It’s not hard to find similar sentiments online (indeed a couple of them found their way into my inbox, after last week’s column).

It’s not like public perception of cyber security is any more rose-tinted, after several high profile online security breaches this year. This month alone, we’ve had news of a Facebook hack affecting 50 million accounts and a Google+ bug that gave Google an excuse to finally shut down the ailing social network.

None of this is lost on Dean Heiford, who told me that “security is our key concern in this trial.”

“We are looking to invest in an online system with extremely high levels of assurance,” he continued, “and will work with independent security experts to ensure stringent independent auditing, reviewing and verification processes.”

Heiford suggested the Facebook and Google+ hacks might even be a good thing, “because it’s getting the wider community thinking about cyber security and increasing awareness around it.”

Provided the LGNZ trials proceed and are successful (that is, there are no security breaches), is the next logical step to consider online voting for the New Zealand General Election? The Electoral Commission has adopted a cautious approach and isn’t making any promises.

In her submission on the Local Electoral Matters Bill at the end of May, Chief Electoral Officer Alicia Wright wrote that “legislative change would be required to conduct or even trial online voting for parliamentary elections.” However, “consensus support” for this has not yet been achieved, she wrote, a seeming reference to an earlier comment that “there is regular public debate about online voting and views are polarised both here and overseas.”

Similar comments were made in the Electoral Commission’s 60-page report on the 2017 General Election. In that document, the Commission would only commit to “continue to monitor online voting initiatives.” However, the report also noted that NZ is actively working with state and national counterparts in Australia “around the potential for a shared service to provide online voting capability.”

It’s important to remember that although online voting has been experimented with in various countries – including Australia and Canada – only one country so far has implemented online voting for its national elections. In Estonia, whose population is just 1.3 million, online voting has been an option in its general election since 2005. But Estonia also has a compulsory digital ID system, which is credited with having prevented any serious security issues over that time.

So Estonia proves online voting in general elections can be done, but for New Zealand it’s a case of step by cautious step.

First, the LGNZ needs to successfully complete its trials across nine different councils next year. The Electoral Commission will no doubt take note of the results of those trials, as well as monitor what’s happening overseas. Perhaps then the Commission will seek a mandate from the NZ public to trial online voting in a general election.

Over the next several years we’ll also need to see RealMe gain traction across the nation. It may even evolve into a national digital ID, similar to the systems in Estonia and Singapore.

I stand by my prediction that we’ll eventually be able to vote online in our general election, but as I said it won’t be in the next election or the one after. It could be a decade or more away, judging by the current period of trials and cautious monitoring.